Our language and ideologies lend themselves to seeing faith as one religious idea amongst many. How we consider (or neglect to consider) and define faith has far reaching, theologically unique consequences. The moment we begin to consider faith merely as an objectified “what”—as a concept, an idea, a conviction, a persuasion—we take a dangerous theological stance.
If faith can, in any physical or metaphysical sense, be objectified, it becomes something we try to possess, quantify, and obtain. We try to take hold of it ourselves, individually. Christians, then, have the urgent task of asking whether or not there’s an alternative understanding of faith.
Instead of seeing faith as a commodity or object, Paul, Jesus, and John Mark McMillan see faith as a supernatural gift, offered by a holy and loving God. This shift of perspective makes more of God and His kindness and gives us a better starting point for working out our own salvation.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” —Ephesians 2:8-10
“For the kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power.” —1 Corinthians 4:10
In both these sections of Scripture, Paul indicates that a “faith of yourselves” or a “Kingdom of words” would be insufficient in relation to a supernatural gospel. In Paul’s manner of discussing faith, human hands and minds alone are insufficient tools to work out the essence of the Cross. Paul even points out that our good works were prepared beforehand—they were real and known before we carried them out.
If faith, “the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), cannot be described in terms of our human abilities, ideas, or efforts, we then have the difficult task of describing the indescribable, living out the unknowable. If faith exists not only outside of our abilities, but beyond our comprehension, we must be radically dependent on God to help us work our faith out in any way. Apart from Him, the task is impossible. God does not grant us the gift of faith only at conversion. He continues to grant it to us in abundance each day, and it pleases Him to do so.
While our faith is of God, we must continue to think of each one of us as having our own faith. If faith is a gift, we must consider that a gift is only truly a gift if it is given to become the recipient’s possession. Those who have been saved have not only been given faith but also the task of being responsible for this precious gift from the Divine.
How then do we keep ourselves from pride? How can we take responsibility and ownership of our gift, which is fully unwarranted and yet fully ours? How do we posses it without seeing it simply as a commodity?
Consider some of Jesus’s own words about faith as a response. Speaking of the faith that drives out demons to the disciples, Jesus says, “For truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you’”(Matthew 17:20). Here, Jesus declares that even a small amount of faith makes possible the impossible. But if we’re too quick, we can quickly misinterpret Jesus’s words.
If mustard seed faith can move mountains, what then could mountain-sized faith move? In this question, we have only a starting point for hubris. Our faith grows up into something big, like a tree which bears fruit. But it’s not that we ever needed or deserved anything more than we were given in order for fruit to come about. We were given something seemingly small—but, like the seed which one day becomes part of something far bigger, who are we to determine smallness? God’s gift is to be lived out and appreciated, more than it is to be quantified. He brings about the fruit of our faith in season, so we need not worry.
This small, but large, near, but from afar, gift of faith warrants our absolute thankfulness. We serve God only by appreciating what God has done, and by our appreciation, God then carries out even more. We remember that all He does, He does out of a holy and prodigal love for His children—a love that can never be earned or warranted, a love that gives gifts that can never be returned.
JOHN MARK MCMILLAN
In John Mark McMillan’s “Mercury and Lightning,” listens get a sense of the uncertainty that comes with an individual wrestling with God. The song makes a profound statement directed at faith’s essence. McMillan sings,
“I swear I've heard the echoes of a voice
Like a dream that you feel, but you don't remember
I've known it ever since I was a boy
Like a word on the tip of my tongue”
Here, McMillan describes both the immanence and persistent evasiveness of faith. Though the song goes on at length about chasing God and coming up short again and again, the song’s speaker is still left with the certainty of an unshakeable and indescribable sentiment from a time he can’t remember.
When we see this sentiment as faith, we begin to get at faith’s distant origins. Faith comes from God, but He’s holy and of an entirely Other place. His gift, though ever present with His children through conflict and doubt, naturally shares this same foreign and wild flavor.
The persistence of this wild and beautiful gift even in the midst of our wandering, doubt, and unbelief ought to humble us. When we consider that God feels distant when we go through times of wandering, we should pay close attention to our restlessness. This restlessness that passionately questions everything, only to passively drift into discontentment and worry, is symptomatic of ungratefulness. We might only hear the echoes of the voice, or the remnants of a dream, but the gift’s powerful immanence has not dwindled simply because we have been ungrateful.
While faith may feel far away, while it may seem merely like an echo, the gift has been given, and we can hold it tightly.
Cody is a churchman and a student of literature and philosophy. He is driven by a desire to see the divine and the beautiful in the midst of the earthly, especially in writing and in music.